How to advance gender equality — and make successes last

By Aruna Rao 25 March 2014

Dalit women on the outskirts of Chakrapanpur Village in Uttar Pradesh display their job cards. Under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the goal is to increase women’s access to guaranteed wage employment. Photo by: Leena Patel/UN Women

Strategizing about the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals and shaping priorities from a “20 years after Beijing” review are well underway. These discussions now also include a focus on the role of social norms, values and attitudes in shaping women’s and girls’ access to resources, their ability to voice interests and priorities, take action to improve their welfare and create new futures.

Girls may want to go to secondary school but their parents may not believe that investment will benefit them since girls will have to marry and leave the family. Women may not want to abort a female fetus but husbands and in-laws may force them to do it. Families may delay the decision to seek medical help from a nearby clinic for a women’s health emergency because it costs too much and they don’t prioritize her welfare. The double burden on women’s time (productive and reproductive work) remains fairly intact around the world from agricultural workers in Mozambique to the senior women in the American foreign policy establishment like Anne-Marie Slaughter. Women’s sexual subordination to men in many contexts means they have given up their rights; consequently, that undermines the value of their consent or their voice in public decision-making and politics.

We formed Gender at Work in 2003 precisely to spotlight and challenge this tangled web of informal, deeply entrenched social norms that sabotage the best policies and plans to advance gender equality. Our network of 28 associates and staff in 10 countries has worked with more than 100 organizations ranging from government agencies, multilaterals and donor agencies to trade unions and community-based organizations around the world. The Gender at Work analytical framework links change in social norms to gender equality outcomes. It helps individuals and organizations to highlight the informal rules that determine who gets what, who does what and who decides, and to think through how change happens.

While development discourse now recognizes the importance of tackling social norms for promoting gender equality, what often gets missed in these conversations is that the very social norms that drive gender inequality in families and communities also operate in organizations and networks. Certainly, we now acknowledge there is such a thing as the glass ceiling and that organizational human resources policies highlight the benefits of a “diverse” workforce, that sexual harassment in the workplace is in the public eye, and that “unconscious bias” is now a hot topic. What we discount is how gender-biased norms are hot-wired into the DNA of organizational systems and kept in place by both visible and invisible power dynamics, and how this results in gender-inequitable outcomes.

We want girls to go to school, but schoolgirls of all ages have reported a large number of instances of sexual harassment and assault in school. We have ample evidence that development bureaucracies shield sexual predators and hide sexual harassment under the carpet. The allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the International Monetary Fund and Ruud Lubbers at U.N. Refugee Agency are cases in point. (Sexual assault charges brought against Strauss-Kahn in 2011 were later dismissed; Lubbers resigned in 2005 proclaiming his innocence after the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services began to track complaints from female colleagues about sexual advances he had allegedly made. The editor) Trade unions around the world have a storied history in the struggle for workers’ rights but at the same time, their patriarchal practices often go unchallenged and their bureaucratic forms of control limit women’s participation.

Although feminist activists and femocrats have worked hard to establish legislative frameworks and policy guarantees for women’s rights and gender equality, in many countries these are not well implemented. Part of that has to do with inadequate resources, but the greater part has to do with gender biases that are built into the very institutions that are mandated to bring about change.

So, what should we do? Just as social norms in families and communities have made it onto our radars, we need to pay more attention to the “deep structures” of organizations and systems — the collection of values, history, culture and practices that form the unquestioned, “normal” way of doing work in an organization.

There are a number of good examples of programs that take elements of invisible social norms into account: the Dalit Women’s Accountability Program in India funded by U.N. Women and carried out by Gender at Work, for example, successfully challenged the unstated but operational bias of keeping poor, semiliterate Dalit women out of better-paid supervisory jobs in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme on the assumption that they were not able to handle the “technical” aspects of the job, such as measuring the work performed. Combining with other such innovations in the program across India, this initiative also successfully advocated for policy change, which has resulted in a pledge that 50 percent of all supervisory posts across the program go to women.

BRAC, a development organization founded in Bangladesh in 1972, despite a strong hierarchy of authority and seniority, instituted an organization-wide process of action-learning in small groups to delve into its “culture of silence” around power dynamics and gender inequality. This created spaces within the organization where gender-biased social norms and behaviors, normally left hidden, were openly discussed. In the South African Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union, gender activists created a space where women members could safely share their experiences of sexual harassment, which is rampant in the union and used as a weapon to undermine women’s power, and learn skills of negotiation so that they can put issues of gender equality squarely on the agenda of the union.

These programs and others like them are cutting pathways into challenging and changing norms. To see greater gender equality outcomes in the post-2015 MDG world, we need to learn from these innovations and invest in specific strategies to address gender biases in systems of delivery and organizations of all kinds that are mandated to translate gender equality policy into results that benefit women and girls.

Otherwise, we will continue to see our goals disappear in the black hole of institutional practice.

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About the author

Aruna rao devex
Aruna Rao

Aruna Rao is the co-founder and executive director of Gender at Work, a transnational network of individuals and organizations that build knowledge and practice to end discrimination against women and advance cultures of equality. She is an expert in the field of gender and development with over 30 years of experience in pioneering new approaches to gender and institutional change. She has consulted widely with a range of government, academic and development agencies.


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